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Written by David Smythe
Published on Sunday 13 March 2016

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The latest Scottish Ensemble’s trademark imaginative programming brings us South Atlantic Crossings, exploring what happens when music and traditions of two continents collide. The influences of Bach and Mozart on South Americans Villa-Lobos and Piazzolla are surprising, and adding the exciting Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero to the mix promised some high drama.

Mozart made a study of Bach, the story goes, rattling off his fugues to the delight of his wife Constanza who suggested he used this form in his own composition. His Adagio and Fugue was a startling mixture of compositional styles, beginning with a stately opening played here with precise bite and attack but interspersed with cello passages softly glowing in contrast before launching into the fugue. The Ensemble imbued a restless urgency into this piece, passing passages across from player to player in an exciting dialogue which became bolder as it built to a flourishing climax.

Our first visit across the South Atlantic was to hear Villa-Lobos’ aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 arranged for strings by John Krance. The dreamy theme was played on individual instruments, but then shared in combinations often an octave apart, the players enjoying setting up and then leaning into a gentle Brazilian sway of plucked broken chords referencing Bach’s ever moving bass lines. After some high passion, particularly from the sonorous three cellos, the music returned to the start, deliberately understated this time by the Ensemble and to a final softly dying chord.

Bach’s influence was felt throughout this programme, but the only Bach piece was his challenging Ricecar a 6, a devilish fugue in six parts. Jonathan Morton explained that it is like six people in a room having a conversation about something important, but all talking at once. We hear this on the radio sometimes when a presenter fails to stop just two people talking over each other, but it is intriguing that something which cannot work for speech manages very well musically. Using a reduced ensemble of single players for each part, Bach’s complicated gift to the King of Prussia was given a good workout, the double bass providing depth to the short pedal points and it was fun to try to trace the individual voices working their way through the musical puzzle.

To finish the first half, the Ensemble was joined by Gabriela Montero to perform Piazzolla’s Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra. A menacing Prelude beginning with a ghostly tremolo played near the bridge with repeated single notes from the piano on the beat developed into a sad flowing melody, violins and cellos with question and answer phrases. A lively fugue followed, pianist and lower strings lightly tapping out tango based rhythms with their fingers as the subject began in the upper strings developing into fierce unisons and a robust wild and spiky piano from Montero. Counting the band in, Un, dos, tres….. she sparkled at the keys in the bright and busy the Divertimento with all the fun and excitement of a bustling Buenos Aires.

Piazzolla died suddenly from a stroke. Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round imagines Piazzolla getting the chance to come back one more time. Two movements are based on the tango instrument, the accordion-like bandoneon, the first on its violent compression and the second on its endless opening and sigh. It is a theatrical piece for two string quarters arranged in a V shape creating a forest of bows, with a double bass taking charge at the top. Inventive and dissonant, the two quartets shared themes developing into a maelstrom of notes. There was a delicious mischief too as the second quartet set up a daring pizzicato/glissando accompaniment with a playfulness of children intent on lots of fun before a slower more lyrical theme brought us back to earth.

Finally, Montero returned for a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major. The Scottish Ensemble has a knack of interpreting music as if it has just been discovered, and its lively account with detailed phrasing and perfect balance was an ideal accompaniment to Montero’s strong flowing interpretation in the Allegro, tuneful simplicity in the Andantino and letting fly with fistfuls of notes in the final movement which positively danced.

The Ensemble has been in Dundee for a few days residency, playing in schools, with young musicians and in the lovely McManus Art Gallery. It has also been a big birthday for Jonathan Morton in the city, so it was apt that when Gabriela Montero asked for a theme for improvisation from the audience as an encore, Happy Birthday was suggested. Like a theme and variations in a crazy musical playground, beginning quietly and ending in a wild South American dance, Montero’s birthday present was really something special, a treat for a special birthday boy.

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Read the review on Bachtrack website